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Review of  The Oxford Guide to Etymology

Reviewer: Marc Pierce
Book Title: The Oxford Guide to Etymology
Book Author: Philip Durkin
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 21.3133

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AUTHOR: Durkin, Philip
TITLE: The Oxford Guide to Etymology
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2009

Marc Pierce, Department of Germanic Studies, University of Texas at Austin


The study of etymology has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the last few
decades. Old etymologies have been challenged; new etymological handbooks have
appeared; and etymological studies have been taken in entirely new directions by
some scholars. Examples of each of these phenomena, from the area of Germanic
etymology, include the following: in the 1980s, new etymologies were proposed
for words like 'book' and 'rune', both of which had well-established etymologies
originally proposed by Jacob Grimm; recent scholarly handbooks include the
scholarly (Liberman 2005, 2008), and the not-so-scholarly (Ostler 2008); and the
etymological aspects of Theo Vennemann's theories about language in prehistoric
Europe have led to some very interesting (and controversial) results (e.g.,
Vennemann 2003, along with Baldi and Page 2006). The volume under consideration
here, written by the lead etymologist for the Oxford English Dictionary, fits
neatly into this resurgence.


The book consists of nine thematic chapters, a brief concluding chapter, a
detailed glossary, a commentary on recommended future readings, and an extensive
list of references. Chapter 1, 'Introduction' (1-33), defines the term
'etymology' (as ''the investigation of word histories'' [1]), reviews some of the
basic ideas behind etymology (sound change, linguistic borrowing, language
families, etc) by looking at the etymologies of the English words 'friar' and
'sad', justifies the study of etymology (and also rebuts the 'etymological
fallacy', which holds that a word's etymology somehow reflects its 'true'
meaning), and then discusses some of the 'typical activities that characterize
etymological research' (31), e.g. gathering data.

Chapter 2, 'What is a word? Which words need etymologies?' (34-60), first
sketches various definitions of the term 'word', and then turns to processes
like the creation of new words (via borrowing, compounding, etc). This is
followed by a discussion of lexicalization, i.e. words that 'are opaque -- in
meaning, or composition, or both' (49), e.g. English 'husband' and 'lord' (see
Brinton and Traugott 2005, among other works, for more extensive discussion of
lexicalization) and 'cranberry morphs' (words that look like compounds, but in
which 'one of the elements is not analysable' [57]). The chapter closes with a
consideration of what words actually need etymologies (words with transparent
formations probably do not, for instance).

Chapter 3, 'Are words coherent entities' (61-93), concentrates on 'the variation
in form and meaning shown by individual words' (61). This variation is first
explicated by a discussion of English 'poke' in the sense 'bag, sack' (as in the
idiom 'a pig in a poke', which, as Durkin notes, is the only context in which
most speakers of English use this word); the next section considers the question
of when a word's history actually begins. This issue is significantly more
complicated than it might seem at first glance, due to factors like gaps in the
historical record (e.g. Durkin notes that 'air kiss' is attested once in 1887,
and then again from 1986 on [68]). Even in cases where etymologists might seem
to be on steadier ground, like coinages, for instance, problems can arise (e.g.
words can be in oral circulation for various lengths of time before being
recorded). The chapter also covers topics like homonymy and polysemy (and how
these relationships can change with time), merger in form and meaning (e.g.
English 'melt' stems from two separate Old English verbs), splits in word form
(e.g. English 'flour' and 'flower' stem from the same word), merger followed by
split (as in the history of English 'council' and 'counsel', which merged in
Middle English, and then split again later), and homonymic clash.

The first three chapters invoke topics having to do with word formation, without
ever systematically treating the topic. Chapter 4, 'Word formation' (94-131),
therefore offers such a systematic treatment. It first considers affixation and
related issues (e.g. the borrowing of affixes and the emergence of new affixes),
and then deals with synonyms, nonce formations, blocking, and compounding, along
with processes like ablaut, clipping, and blending. The final section of the
chapter deals with arbitrary and non-arbitrary linguistic signs, covering
onomatopoeia, animal names, and expressive formations, among other phenomena.

Chapter 5, 'Lexical borrowing' (132-154), is the first of two chapters focused
on borrowing. It lays out some of the basic concepts and terminology (e.g. loan
words, loan translations, loan blends, etc), and also considers some possible
motivations for borrowing (e.g. borrowing a word for a new thing), as well as
patterns of borrowing in linguistic history (concentrating on Latin and French
borrowings in English). Chapter 6, 'The mechanisms of borrowing' (155-178),
continues the discussion of borrowing, discussing the issues of basic
vocabulary, language shift, borrowings from multiple languages (as in cases like
archaic English 'pease', yielding Modern English 'pea', which was originally
borrowed into Old English from post-classical Latin, but also reflects French
influence, as it contains a diphthong, not a monophthong like the Latin source),
semantic influence, how to tell that borrowing has taken place, and lexical
borrowings and code-switching.

Chapter 7, 'Change in word form' (179-221), largely deals with sound change,
both regular (Grimm's Law, Verner's Law, the Great Vowel Shift) and sporadic
(metathesis), as well as what Durkin calls 'associative change in word form'
(197), e.g. analogy, folk etymology, spelling pronunciation, and metanalysis (as
when 'a nadder' was reanalyzed as 'an adder'). It also touches on the question
of 'how regular are regular sound changes?' (208), and concludes with a
discussion of formal difficulties in etymologies. The discussion in the last
section is based on etymologies like those for 'purse', where the initial [p] is
unexpected; 'maple tree', which in Durkin's view is probably the 'result of
analogy with 'apple tree'' (218); and 'polecat', which remains etymologically
problematic, due largely to the 'multiplicity of form types which have not been
satisfactorily reconciled with one another' (220).

Chapter 8, 'Semantic change' (222-265), covers change in meaning. Phenomena
discussed in this chapter include types of semantic change (e.g. widening,
narrowing, and pejoration), possible cases of semantic change motivated by
influence from other words, and the predictability of semantic change. This
last issue is particularly interesting, as some scholars, e.g. Sihler (2000),
see semantic change as largely patternless, but others, like Traugott and Dasher
(2002), argue that certain patterns can indeed be discerned. The discussion
here is again based on various English etymologies, e.g. English 'nick' in the
sense 'to make a notch or cut in (something', which closely resembles words in
some other Germanic languages (e.g. Middle Dutch 'nicken', 'to bow, to bend' and
Middle High German 'nicken', 'to bend, press down'), which suggests an
etymological connection, but Durkin rejects this idea on the grounds that 'no
convincing semantic connection can be made' between the English form and the
other Germanic words (255). The final section of the chapter addresses the role
of extralinguistic factors in etymology, cf. the Wörter und Sachen 'words and
things' model of etymological research (e.g. Malkiel 1993).

The final thematic chapter of the book, 'Etymology and names' (266-283), deals
with questions like names and non-linguistic history, names as etymons, and
names as evidence for word meaning, among others. The 'Conclusion' (284-287)
recaps some of the argumentation of the book.


This is a valuable and readable book. It offers a lucid, careful discussion of
the main principles of etymology, and illustrates them with copious examples.
It also nicely contextualizes etymology within the field of historical
linguistics as a whole. I have already drawn on this book in preparing
classroom lectures and discussions, and can easily envision building a course
around this book.

There are some flaws, however. There are some odd gaps in the bibliography, as
some important recent works (e.g. Liberman 2005, 2008) are not cited (and it
should be noted that Liberman also has a blog on English etymology, available at /). One could also of
course quibble about the examples Durkin has chosen to illustrate his arguments;
English 'key', for example, has a fascinating etymology that could have been
included in the discussions of sound change or loan words, among other places in
the work. (See Markey 1979, Liberman 1999-2000, Vennemann 2002, or Pierce
forthcoming on this particular etymology.) Or consider the history of English
'jeep', which is most likely derived either from the abbreviation 'G.P.',
standing either for 'General Production' or 'General Purpose' (although this
issue itself is controversial), or from Eugene the Jeep, a character in the
'Popeye' comic strip, who squeaked 'Jeep!' There does not seem to be any
conclusive evidence in favor of either proposal, showing just how problematic
the issue can be (see Liberman 2005 for additional discussion of this example).
There are also a handful of minor slips, e.g. Traugott and Dasher's work on
semantic change originally appeared in 2002, not 2005. Such objections aside,
this book deserves a place on every etymologist's shelves.


Baldi, Philip and B. Richard Page. 2006. Review article on Vennemann (2003).
Lingua 116: 2183-2220.

Brinton, Laurel and Elizabeth Closs Traugott. 2005. Lexicalization and
language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Liberman, Anatoly. 1999-2000. The etymology of the English word 'key'.
Rivista Italiana di Linguistica e di Dialettologia I-II: 135-148.

Liberman, Anatoly. 2005. Word origins and how we know them. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Liberman, Anatoly. 2008. An analytic dictionary of English etymology: An
introduction. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Malkiel, Yakov. 1993. Etymology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Markey, Thomas L. 1979. Nfr. kūch, Engl. 'key', and the unshifted consonant
question. Zeitschrift für Dialektologie und Linguistik XLVI: 41-55.

Ostler, Rosemarie. 2008. Let's talk turkey. The stories behind America's
favorite expressions. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Pierce, Marc. Forthcoming. Modern English 'key' and the problem of loan words
in Germanic. To appear in Historische Sprachforschung.

Sihler, Andrew L. 2000. Language history: An introduction. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Traugott, Elizabeth Closs and Richard B. Dasher. 2002. Regularity in semantic
change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vennemann, Theo. 2002. Key issues in English etymology. Sounds, words, texts,
and change, ed. Teresa Fanego, Belén Méndez-Naya and Elena Seoane, 227-252.
Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Vennemann, Theo. 2003. Europa Vasconica - Europa Semitica. Edited by
Patrizia Noel Aziz Hanna. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Marc Pierce is assistant professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses largely on historical linguistics, Germanic linguistics, the history of linguistics, and phonology.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0199236518
ISBN-13: 9780199236510
Pages: 360
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